Eighteen holes stand between Rory McIlroy and the perfect new year statement of intent, as he bids for victory at the Abu Dhabi Championship at long last.
The enthralling nature of the tournament is emphasised by McIlroy’s series of positions. At the end of the first round, he led by one. With 31 tournament holes completed – play was called at this Friday juncture for him because of darkness – the 31-year-old found himself five adrift of Tyrrell Hatton. McIlroy had cut that advantage to three by the delayed conclusion of his second round and he now leads Hatton by one, as he seeks to win the event at the 12th time of asking.
Not that McIlroy has ever been a believer in the work of the golfing gods. “I can’t go into tomorrow thinking it’s my turn,” he said. “I want to make it my turn. I have to go out there and continue to hit the ball like I hit it on the back nine today. If I can do that and give myself plenty of opportunities, I’ll have a real chance.”
Round three bore witness to some marquee McIlroy moments as he moved to 13 under par. He played a fairway bunker shot at the 3rd to tap-in birdie territory before holing out from the rough for an eagle at the 10th. He admitted that one was linked to good fortune. “Sometimes that’s what you need in tournaments, to be in contention and to end up winning; those little strokes of luck every now and again.”
His approach to the 16th, which set up his fifth and final birdie of the round, was superb. A 67 was duly added to scores of 64 and 72.
“It’s so blustery,” McIlroy said. “It’s different type of golf than we’re used to playing here in Abu Dhabi where there’s usually not much wind. You normally feel like you have a chance on every hole. There’s a little more scrambling involved now and longer putts.”
Such is his status, is always impossible to ignore a bigger picture where McIlroy is concerned. He did not win during a disrupted 2020. If 2021 delivers immediate success, wider speculation about Masters glory will only intensify.
Hatton was treading water before holing from 30ft for a birdie at the penultimate hole. A 71 was his highest score of the event thus far. “I’m pretty disappointed,” the 29-year-old said. “I was trying my best and it was one of those days where nothing went my way. I guess you’re always going to have days like that, you just try and get through it. The good thing is that I’m still in contention going into the final round.”
Champions have a history of racing through the field in Abu Dhabi, meaning any portrayal of this as the McIlroy and Hatton show would be dangerous. Tommy Fleetwood lurks with intent at 11 under after a third round of 67. Marc Warren and David Lipsky are a shot further back. Rafa Cabrera-Bello held the lead before finding water from the tee at the tricky 9th; the Spaniard’s 73 slid him back to nine under.
Fleetwood’s fine performance on the greens has been a notable aspect of the first 54 holes. “It stands out sometimes when I have weeks where I hit it really good and all you see is the odd putt missing,” he said. “You then feel like putting has cost you a tournament.
“But I’ve been doing a lot of great work. I have worked with Phil Kenyon for a long time. It’s one of those things; putting has never been a strength for me, so it requires a lot of work and it’s just been about a lot of progress. I’ve worked really hard on it, psychological side, technical side, so it’s nice to hear some compliments about it.”